“How can you walk away from what’s happening? There, of all places?” Udayan Mitra, one of the protagonists in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, asks his brother Subhash. At the time, West Bengal is simmering with the effects of the Naxalbari uprising, and Subhash has just announced his decision to go abroad for further studies. Udayan, moments later, uncharacteristically admits, “You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.”
Yet, it is Udayan who leaves, as he gets embroiled in the Naxalite movement, the armed peasant revolt in 1967 at Naxalbari in West Bengal, where farmers picked up arms against landlords. The two lead characters, inseparable during their childhood, grow up during the 1940s and 50s in Calcutta’s Tollygunge. By the time they are in college (Udayan in Presidency College, Subhash in Jadavpur) the embers of the Naxalite movement have spread across West Bengal, and captured popular imagination. Slogans are being written on the walls, schools are shut and pipe guns are made to shoot at the police.
Growing up in Calcutta 30 years after the movement, the tales of the Naxalbari uprising were reduced to afternoon stories my jyethi (aunt) told me. Referred to as the bhoyanok shottor (the horrifying 70s), she narrated tales with equal fervour every time I asked her to repeat oi golpota (that story)— of a time when she was young, her hair wasn’t grey, and she didn’t need my help to climb stairs.
I was told stories of the nights she stayed up making posters at other friends’ homes for an uprising that had started in Naxalbari, “one of the villages in the Darjeeling district…closer to Tibet than to Tollygunge” (incidentally close to where we stayed). I listened to them with excitement, and disbelief. I hadn’t heard the name of the place much, it wasn’t part of my conversations with friends, and seemed far removed from the world I resided in. Moreover, I could not imagine a woman, who was older and stricter than my mother, being so uncharacteristically reckless.
One afternoon, I remember jyethi while refusing to narrate similar tales, shared how one of her brothers (“the brightest among the rest”), who studied at Shibpur Engineering College in West Bengal and had thrown himself into the movement, had gone missing for days. Then one day, “out of nowhere” he had come in the middle of the night with a gun and had asked her to keep it.
“I had hidden that under my aanchol the whole night, and had not slept a wink or moved an inch,” she said. I don’t think I believed her, but I was shaken.
A few years later, I joined Presidency University. Its hallowed walls still bore the imprint of posters from forgotten times, and its students still believed in ushering in change through slogans. I remember listening to them and being reminded, through their impassioned speeches, how some of the institution’s brightest minds had joined the movement selflessly, and with an absolute resolve to change things.
I read The Lowland when I was in my third year in college. By then I was a tad wary of Lahiri’s prose due to its overt sentimentality. This novel, to my surprise, was an exception. In many ways, it occupies the same territory the author has assiduously made her own. It explores the themes of dislocation, the accompanying melancholia, and nostalgia. Much like her previous works, a great chunk of The Lowland is set abroad—a narrative ploy Lahiri is evidently comfortable with.
However, while reading the novel it struck me how unusual, and important it was in her oeuvre. In a novel that spans three generations, Lahiri takes us inside the houses of Calcutta she had hitherto chosen only to gaze at from afar, using the Naxalbari uprising as the crux. Although she mentions the movement in detail only in the beginning, it changes the lives of the three protagonists completely and irrevocably, with its memories sticking to their feet wherever they went.
Unlike my jyethi, Udayan, the one who believed in the peasants’ uprising, their retaliation, and the fact that “people those in power do nothing to protect”, was exactly the age I was in when the narrative unfolds. He loses his life early on, but his absence hangs like a perceptible shadow over the entire narrative. His involvement, his belief in the movement, his words uttered within the walls of the university I was studying in years later, were stripped off the fable-like quality I associated with the movement earlier.
Amidst the crowd that often floods the avenues of College Street, Udayan seemed like a person I could know, and perhaps even spot. He’d be the one standing in a corner, looking at an atrocity, and inching towards actions he thinks could eradicate it. An idealistic young boy who, despite all the knowledge books have to offer, would not know when to turn back. For me, The Lowland, brought memories of an erstwhile movement to the fore, gave names and faces to the stories I had heard before, but had not believed entirely.
By making the personal political, and using memory as a tool in the narrative, The Lowland popularised the Naxalbari uprising for me, and even humanised the acts. Later, I read Mahasweta Devi’s searing Hajar Churashir Maa (Mother of 1084), and heard several friends praise Neel Mukherjee’s 2014 novel The Lives of Others for doing a far better job in writing about the movement. But perhaps it was the fact that, much like me, Lahiri too (born in 1967 in London) had heard of the uprising, and viewed it with a curious detachment that resonated with me. The Lowland made me believe in my jyethi’s stories and the quiver in her voice during those afternoons, striking a chord like no other.